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WNBA playoff preview: Aces, Storm big favorites for Finals showdown

Aces forward A'ja Wilson drives against Storm defenders (from left) Sami Whitcomb, Natasha Howard and Breanna Stewart.
Aces forward A’ja Wilson drives against the Storm defenders (from left) Sami Whitcomb, Natasha Howard and Breanna Stewart during a game in the WNBA bubble.
(Mike Carlson / Associated Press)

When Bill Laimbeer arrived in Bradenton, Fla., for the WNBA’s quarantined season in July, the Las Vegas Aces head coach had a clear idea which team he thought would rise to the top of the league. It wasn’t his.

Two months later, with the No. 1 seed in the WNBA playoffs, Laimbeer needed a moment to collect his thoughts.

“Who would’ve thunk it?” Laimbeer told reporters on a videoconference call after the Aces (18-4) clinched the top seed Sunday with a win over the championship-favorite Seattle Storm.

The Aces’ unexpected rise to the top of the standings is the latest twist in the WNBA’s unique season, which continues Tuesday with the first round of the playoffs. The team rode star forward A’ja Wilson and the most prolific bench in league history to a season sweep of the Storm and three wins in four days to close the regular season. All this after losing starters Liz Cambage and Kelsey Plum before the season began.

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“Where we started the year, a lot of uncertainty, a lot of new faces and to have this kind of success to date, we’ll take it,” said Laimbeer, who lost Plum to an Achilles injury and Cambage to a medical exemption related to COVID-19. “But we realize that we’ve won nothing. There’s still a long way to go.”

With a two-round bye in hand, the Aces and No. 2 seed Storm (18-4) have one week to rest before the semifinal series begin Sept. 20. Six other teams start action this week. Here’s what to know for the WNBA playoffs:

The favorites

The Aces thwarted the Storm’s charge for the top seed, but the teams seem destined to meet again in the Finals. After the 22-game regular season, the top two finished three games ahead of the third-seeded Sparks.

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The Storm, which played Sunday without Breanna Stewart (ankle) and Sue Bird (knee), lead the league in both offensive and defensive rating.

After losing Cambage and Plum, the Aces persevered with Wilson, free-agent acquisition Angel McCoughtry, and their explosive bench, which averaged 35 points per game for the season, breaking the record of 33.9 set by Minnesota in 2008.

The field

The Sparks faded at the finish with two straight losses. After celebrating its bench early this year, the team’s depth was tested with injuries to guards Sydney Wiese (ankle) and Tierra Ruffin-Pratt (shoulder). They could return in time for the Sparks’ single-elimination second-round game Thursday.

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Sparks head athletic trainer Courtney Watson is the center of the team’s WNBA bubble life. She’s just as impressive off the court by helping aspiring trainers.

With teams getting reseeded after each round, the Sparks (15-7) face the lowest remaining seed after first-round games featuring No. 5 Phoenix Mercury vs. No. 8 Washington Mystics, and the No. 6 Chicago Sky vs. No. 7 Connecticut Sun. The remaining first-round survivor faces No. 4 seed Minnesota. The Lynx (14-8) are expected to have forward Sylvia Fowles, the league’s all-time leading rebounder, back from a calf injury that limited her to only seven games.

The featured names

Wilson and Stewart lead the MVP conversation with their teams at the top of the league. Stewart, the 2018 MVP who led the Storm to the title, averaged 19.7 points, 8.3 rebounds and 3.6 assists this season, but missed the last two games due to injury.

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Wilson averaged 20.5 points per game in the regular season, which ranked second in the WNBA, with a league-leading 2.0 blocks per game and 8.5 rebounds per game.

Four years after winning her first WNBA championship, Sparks forward Candace Parker is a defensive player-of-the-year contender as she leads the league with 9.7 rebounds per game.

Despite three weeks without Brittney Griner, who left the bubble for personal reasons in August, the Mercury (13-9) advanced to the playoffs on the back of Diana Taurasi, who averaged 21.1 points per game over the last nine games, which included seven Phoenix wins.

For the third straight year, point guard Courtney Vandersloot broke her own record for assists per game in a season, averaging 9.95 this year for the Sky (12-10).

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Nguyen reported from Los Angeles.


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